Where and When can a Soccer Goalie use Their Hands?


Where and when soccer goalie can use hands header image

Knowing where and when a soccer goalie can and can’t use their hands to touch or pick up the ball is one of the most important things you need to know when it comes to understanding soccer.

This article will walk you through the areas of the soccer field where the ball can be handled by the goalie and will clarify the situations when a goalkeeper is permitted to touch the ball with their hands.

Firstly let’s look at the question, where on the soccer field can a goalkeeper use their hands?

The only area of the soccer field that a goalie can use their hands to touch the ball is within their own penalty area. If the goalkeeper touches the ball outside this area then a direct free kick will be awarded to the opposing team at the point the foul was committed.

Where this rule about a goalie handling the ball becomes a little more complicated is the fact that there are a few exceptions to this rule. Even if the ball is within the penalty area the goalkeeper can’t always pick it up.

If you read on we’ll look at each of these exceptions, discover when it is ok to handle the ball, and by the end of this article, you’ll hopefully have a much better idea of not only where but when a goalie can use their hands.

If you are also interested in finding out the rules for soccer goalies, then check out my article – 8 rules that every soccer goalie needs to know

Where a Goalie can use their Hands to Pick up the Ball

In soccer, the goalkeeper is the only player on the field of play that can use their hands to touch the ball. Every other player is restricted to only using their feet, legs, head, and torso.

There are restrictions around where on the field the goalie can use their hands.

Within Their Penalty Area

As I mentioned above, the only place a goalkeeper can handle the ball is within the penalty area.

But when you hear someone refer to the penalty area on a soccer field, it may not be immediately apparent what they are referring to. This may be because you’re new to the game or alternatively, you may have heard this area referred to by a different name.

Although this area is officially known as the penalty area is also commonly called the penalty box or 18-yard box.

These three names are often used interchangeably but they all refer to the same thing – the large rectangle box at either end of the soccer field.

soccer field with edges of penalty area highlighted in red
Penalty area on soccer field marked highlighted in red

In the image above the outer edges of the penalty area are marked clearly in red.

Within this area is the only place on the soccer field where the goalkeeper can touch the ball with their hands or arms.

Under no circumstances can they handle the ball outside this area, and under no circumstances can any other player handle the ball within or outside of this area.

The goalie is only permitted to handle the ball in the area at the end of the soccer field that the goalie’s team is defending.

The Position of the Ball Is Critical

Soccer ball inside the penalty area
Position of the ball matters

It’s also important to know that the position of the ball and not the position of the goalkeeper is what determines when the ball can be handled.

For example, if the goalkeeper is clearly within the penalty area, but the ball is outside the area, then the goalie cannot pick up or handle the ball.

Alternatively, if the goalkeeper is clearly outside the penalty area, but the ball is within the area, then it is ok for the goalkeeper to handle the ball as long as the ball stays within the penalty area.

As soon as the ball leaves the penalty area, the goalkeeper cannot handle the ball.

Also, there is no restriction on a goalie controlling the ball with their feet outside of the area and then kicking the ball into the area and picking it up.

When a Goalie Can Pick up the Ball

Having established where a goalkeeper can pick up the ball we need to look at when a goalie can handle the ball within this area.

When a goalkeeper can pick up the ball depends on what has happened immediately before they receive the ball.

A goalie can use their hands to touch or pick up the ball when

  • the ball is within their penalty area,
  • they haven’t received it directly from a back pass or throw-in from a member of their own team,
  • and they haven’t just dropped the ball from their hands.

To clarify this even further, it is easier to look at when a goalie cannot use their hands.

There are 4 situations where a goalie cannot use their hands.

  1. When the ball has been deliberately kicked back to them by another player on their team
  2. When they receive the ball directly from a throw-in by another player on their team
  3. When they have held the ball continuously for 6 seconds
  4. When they have already held the ball for 6 seconds and released it and it has not been touched by another player

Let’s look at these in more detail.

1. When the ball has been deliberately kicked to them by a player on the same team

If the goalkeeper receives the ball directly from a deliberate kick by a player on the same team as them, the goalkeeper cannot use their hands to touch the ball.

If they did this would result in an indirect kick to the other team from the place where the goalie touched the ball.

This does not mean that the goalie cannot touch the ball with any other part of their body.

In this instance, it would be fine for them to kick the ball, use their head, or any other body part they wish to use. They must simply avoid using their hands.

Back pass rule

This rule is known as the “back pass rule”.

Introduced by FIFA (the governing body of world soccer) in 1992.

The back-pass rule states that ”an indirect free kick is awarded if a goalkeeper, inside their penalty area, touches the ball with the hand/arm after it has been deliberately kicked to the goalkeeper by a team-mate.“

Find out more about direct and indirect free kicks in my article – Free Kicks in Soccer: Everything you need to know.

This rule was introduced to reduce the amount of time-wasting that was happening in soccer games by players deliberately passing the ball back to the goalkeeper who would then pick the up and hold on to it for as long as possible.

For an example of this have a look at this video below.

Denmark backpass their way to Euro '92 glory
Example of time-wasting by passing back to goalkeeper

The example in this video was just before the back pass rule was introduced. To slow down the game and stop the other team from getting the ball, Denmark kept passing the ball back to their goalkeeper to pick up.

These attempts to slow down the game were having a negative effect on how enjoyable the game was becoming to watch and prompted by the 1990 FIFA World Cup, where passing the ball back to waste time was commonplace, the new rule was created and introduced.

2. When they receive the ball directly from a throw-in from a player on the same team

This rule is an extension of the back pass rule.

After stating that a goalkeeper cannot handle the ball after it has been deliberately kicked to them by a team-mate, the law goes on to state that the goalkeeper cannot touch the ball with their hand/arm after receiving the ball directly from a throw-in taken by a player on their team.

This rule, introduced in 1997, was another attempt to reduce time-wasting during soccer games.

Too many teams were using the opportunity from a throw-in to get the ball back to the goalkeeper who could hold on to the ball and reduce the time the opposing team had to take control of the ball.

This rule doesn’t restrict a team from throwing the ball to the goalkeeper from a throw-in.

The goalie can still control the ball with their head, chest, or feet, the same as any other player on the field. But restricting the goalkeeper from picking up the ball from a throw-in means the team is forced to keep the ball moving and not waste time.

If you are interested in finding out more about when a goalkeeper can pick up the ball from a throw-in check out another article I wrote – Can a Soccer Goalie Pick Up the Ball from a Throw-in?

3. When they have held onto the ball for 6 seconds

Another part of the Laws of the Game of soccer restricts the goalie to only holding on to the ball for a maximum of 6 seconds at one time.

Law 12 of the Laws of Game of soccer specifically states that the goalkeeper can only have the ball under the control of their hand/arm for a maximum of 6 seconds.

After this, they must release the ball.

If you’ve watched or played soccer for even a short period you may have noticed that a referee can be fairly lenient with this rule.

If the goalkeeper has made or is making, a genuine attempted to release the ball then the referee will use their judgment to decide whether the let the play continue or penalize the goalkeeper.

One of the extreme examples of this was in 2015 when Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet held on to the ball for 22 seconds before the referee decided enough was enough and blew the whistle to award a free-kick to Bordeaux, the team Liverpool were playing that evening.

Bordeaux promptly scored from that free-kick.

4. When they have held the ball and then released it.

This rule actually follows on from the previous one.

After introducing the rule that a goalkeeper could only hold on to the ball for a maximum of 6 seconds at a time some goalkeepers started dropping the ball after 6 seconds and then immediately picking the ball up again.

In order to stop a goalkeeper from wasting time this way, the rule was introduced that once a goalkeeper had released the ball from their control they were not permitted to handle the ball again until another player, from either team, had touched the ball.

For a more in-depth look at what it takes to be a goalkeeper, I recommend you check out my article – Soccer Goalie: Role, Responsibilities, and How to Play.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you now feel you have a better understanding of where and when a goalie can use their hands to touch the ball.

As long as the ball is within the penalty area, the goalie hasn’t received the ball from a deliberate kick from a player on their own team, they haven’t held the ball for more than 6 seconds, and they’ve not just dropped the ball themselves, then they are ok to use their hands.

*If you’ve found this helpful check out the next article – “Yellow Card in Soccer: A Complete Guide”*

Or the previous one – “4 Reasons Why Soccer Players Walk out with Kids” *

All information in this article is based on the official Laws of the Game of Soccer as governed by the International Football Association Board(IFAB)

Ben

Hi! My name's Ben. I've played, watched, read about, and enjoyed soccer throughout my life. I really enjoy finding out more about the game I love and sharing it with you all. Sign up to the yoursoccerhome.com newsletter here or check out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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